The enlargement process

In 2004 the EU carried out the largest expansion round in its history, as Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Cyprus, and Malta joined the Union. In 2007 two more eastern European countries became members when Bulgaria and Romania acceded. Croatia became the 28th EU member state on 1 July 2013.

The prospect of joining the EU and accession itself played an important role in the peaceful transition of candidate countries to democracy and social market economies. The eastern enlargement facilitated overcoming the ideological division of Europe created by the Cold War and represented a decisive step towards greater stability and shared prosperity in Europe. In the process, the EU grew to encompass more than 507 million citizens. It has 24 official languages, including Irish Gaelic since 2007. Moreover, diverse regional languages have been recognised by the EU, for example, Catalan and Basque. The member states also have the right to apply for translations of certain documents into these regional languages.

However, where does Europe end? Where do the boundaries lie?

This question arises in particular with regards to the east, where further countries have expressed interest in accession. The acceptance of potential candidates is subject to strict political, economic, and legal conditions, known as the Copenhagen criteria. Increasingly, the criterion of «integration capacity» of the EU will be a decisive factor in the enlargement process. With a growing number of member states, the Union must also ensure that it retains its ability to take actions and decisions, to comply with cost and budget plans and to effectively implement joint policies.

Enlargement process: next steps

In 2003 the EU extended the prospect of joining the EU to the Western Balkan countries, provided that the candidate countries fulfil the necessary criteria. The accession of Croatia has proven the credibility of this course. The EU is already negotiating accession with Serbia and Montenegro. For Albania, Northmacedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, accession may be on the horizon. Within the EU, apart from that of the Balkan states, there is also controversy over Turkey’s accession: although accession negotiations started in 2005, the Commission’s latest accession report on the situation in Turkey speaks, among other things, of a serious step backwards by Turkey regarding the independence of the judiciary and freedom of expression in the country.

Additional information